The Blue Spark Microphone
You know In-Dev reviews is starting to take off when we get pre-release goodness to review! This time, we have the eagerly anticipated Spark microphone, a solid-state, fixed cardiod condensor mic from Blue, one of the most renowned and respected microphone companies in the industry. While many of their products easily break the four digit mark, the Spark’s ask is a head-turning $200, which makes it the least expensive professional microphone Blue offers. There is some stiff competition in this class and price range, including the AKG Perception 220, MXL V88, and countless low cost, high value Chinese made offerings, such as the Studio Projects B1 and C1 models, or the Apex 480. Even Blue’s own Bluebird microphone is not too far off.
Blue has one of the widest product ranges out there, offering everything from items geared toward the home-studio enthusiast, like the inexpensive Icicle preamp or Snowball USB mic, to truly boutique grade legends, like $6000 Blue Bottle microphone, and a host of other professional microphones at prices in between. The Spark looks like it’s designed to be the new entry in the latter category, and to be honest, the highly stylized presentation had me a little dubious at first. But having put it through its paces a bit, I’m happy to be able to report back that it’s actually quite good, if not (at least in my opinion) exactly what Blue makes it out to be.
Design and Build Quality
Seeing as most of my major qualms with the Spark revolve around its presentation, I figured we’d get this out of the way first. Before anything else, I’ll just go on record that the Spark is beautifully built. It has a surprising heft and weight to it for it’s size, and the construction is clearly quality from top to bottom, both for the mic itself and for the included shock-mount and form-fitted metal pop filter (which, unlike most other pop filters, actually screws onto the back of the case, guaranteeing perfect placement every time). The bright orange color and textured hard plastic finish of the body itself would not have been my first choice, but that’s hardly a show stopper.
From the second you open the box, however, the Spark’s highly stylized presentation hits you like a ton of bricks. The 50’s cartoon style of both the packaging and the manual feels lifted straight from Fallout 3 (whether intentionally or not), and while fun, takes away from the professional aura of the piece a bit. The purple prose and recording-for-dummies approach of the product manual is a little off-putting, as is the need to glorify a high-pass filter by calling it the “focus control.” This is not like the dark vs. warm settings or sides on something like the MXL V67i or the Crowley and Tripp Naked Eye. This is a simple high-pass filter, as Blue’s own comparative frequency graphs provided in the manual will attest to. And to market it as a unique feature that gives you two completely different characters is misleading. I would much rather have had a well labeled switch like most every other mic than have to remember whether in or out is on or off.
Once you get past the layering, however, and get to the mic itself, its class and pedigree is undeniable, especially given what a cheap date the Spark is. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but the one outrageous claim they make in the manual that I have to agree with is that, as a singer, I always feel sexy singing into a Blue microphone. You can’t help but feel special when you’re singing through an all metal, custom fit pop filter with the name Blue emblazoned on it in all it’s retro glory. The Spark, like every other Blue microphone I’ve ever sung into, makes me feel like Dean Martin, and my singing edges just a little closer to that level of greatness as a result.
Sound Quality and Tone
Ultimately sound is always going to be the real meat of the matter, and this is where the Spark will live up to to its name. Despite Blue’s own assertion that the Spark is a largely uncolored mic, I found it be unusually colored for it’s class. The Spark is just that: a bright, highly saturated, somewhat aggressive sounding microphone replete with top end sparkle. It can and will fundamentally alter the sound and character of most sources you use it on, but as long as you recognize this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Spark produces an undeniably desirable sound. Even in cases where you decide a different mic is more appropriate, it’s not because the Spark sounded bad. It’s actually a surprisingly versatile mic given how far off of neutral it’s voiced.
Given the Spark’s inherent depth of color, however, proper preamp matching is important. Things can get a little too saturated with the wrong preamp. I had the best results using neutral to slightly dark or warm of neutral preamps, like my Mackie Onyx pres or my Grace Designs M201. Especially with the latter, the detail retrieval the Spark proved itself capable of was really impressive. Home studio owners with fairly high noise floors will have to be sparing with their gain controls, however.
Having already established that the focus control is merely a high-pass filter, unless you have ambient noise you need to get rid of, or really want a nasally, bright sound, I’d stay away from it. The Spark, as I’ve said, is already a very bright, aggressive microphone, and, at least for my tastes, I almost always want the low end there. The rich, shimmery voice that makes the Spark so special to begin with thins out and starts to become grating with the high pass filter, ahem, I mean “focus control” engaged.
I am undeniably biased, but in my opinion the Spark really shines brightest on vocals. Again, keeping in mind that it does have a unique and less-than-subtle color, this mic can work beautifully on a fairly wide range of voices. The high-mids may be a little too pronounced for those with a more treble-heavy timbre (a.k.a. the Gretchen Parlato school of modern female Jazz vocalists), but I was extremely pleased with the results on my own voice, and I imagine the Spark’s tone would translate well to most similarly round voices. The Spark has all the right gestalt for a front and center microphone, and it’s probably the cheapest mic I’ve ever tried that I’d feel comfortable using for a lead vocal recording. Just be careful not to get to close to the capsule, as the included pop-filter, while doing an excellent job of not muffling the source, does not cut harsh transients as well as other filters I’ve used.
One could easily be misled into thinking that the Spark is indeed yet another reasonably high quality utility mic at this price range, given how many sources it sounds excellent on. The Spark is a far cry from a “what you hear is what you get” type of mic, but so far I’ve yet to get it to sound bad. The tone may not always be what you’re looking for, but in my experience, once you’ve familiarized yourself with its voice, the Spark will behave fairly predictably based on your expectations. Its natural color will make most instruments sound fatter and a little treble rich, and as long as you know that up front, there are few sources I can think of that the Spark couldn’t be ideal for in the right situation. It’s worth noting that there are a number of good multi-pattern large-diaphragm condensors at this price point that are considerably more neutral, and hence suitable for more applications. That said, all price considerations aside, the Spark is a useful tool to have in your arsenal.
There are many respectable microphones in this price range, but the sound of the Spark is essentially unique for its budget. It’s not clearly better than its competition, because I’m not sure it really has all that much competition. Simply put, I have not heard another mic in this price range that has this kind of tone and voice. The closest comparison I can think of is the Rode NT-2A, which is a fantastic microphone in its own right, and was actually the microphone I used for the vocals on my first album. At $200 for a mic of this character, the Spark may well be the only game in town. And when you place the Spark in the larger hierarchy of microphones, it boasts detail retrieval and sound quality that vastly exceeds its diminutive price. A number of the subtleties that distinguish a truly great mic from a good one are present on the Spark, and that too is a feat you’ll be hard pressed to match for a similar ask.
The Final Verdict
Once you get past the somewhat kitschy feel of the packaging and literature, you’ll realize that this is a phenomenally good sounding microphone for its price. Especially for lead instruments that you want to cut through a mix and stand out and shine, the Spark is easily the best choice you’ll find for $200 based on my experience with the competition. If you are putting together a recording setup on a budget, and you need one microphone that can add a little something special to nearly everything you throw it at, look no further than the Spark.
About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and in this case using the same Onyx Blackjack preamps and converters attenuated to the same gain, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.
The Blue Spark’s “focus control,” or glorified high-pass filter, was disabled for all recordings, as was the Shure KSM-44’s high pass filter, in keeping with the parameters of my prior microphone shootouts. The KSM-44’s pickup pattern was set to cardiod to match the Spark’s.
Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack recording interface. All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, the amplifier’s gain was attenuated at 75%, and the Onyx preamp gain was attenuated at line level. Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.
Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.
Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same Blackjack interface (with preamp gain set to 30) and Mogami Gold XLR, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the two mics.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com
JBL just updated their popular EON series with the EON 515XT. In the above video I break down the differences for in these new versions of the EON 515 which feature a fifteen inch speaker. As you can see they are just as light weight and portable as their predecessors. JBL has added a three channel mixer and EQ settings to every speaker making it easy to mix multiple sources to the same PA. In addition it also makes each speaker a small purpose standalone PA as well. The inputs on the EON 515XT’s are also more sensitive by allowing for even low level sources like iPods and dynamic mics to read loud and clear when plugged directly in to one of the 515XT’s.
These speakers are great for any mobile PA system, but taking them on the road poses the risk of scratching the plastic casing or sharp looking matte black grill. We recommend the padded nylon Cordura speaker bags made by Under Cover to keep your EON’s looking pristine when storing them or taking them to the gig. These bags are custom contoured for the 515XT and slide on and off easily as you’ll see in the video above. We’ve got great prices on these speakers and bags and even better deals when you buy them together so be sure to check out the JBL bundles we have available for the best deals on your mobile PA upgrade.
And to get even more up close and personal with these speakers and the bags we carry check out the high res photo set on our flickr.
Rabid Hands is an artist collective in Brooklyn, and over the next week they will be transforming a old Convent in to an art space featuring sound installations. Over 60 artists will be using pro audio gear in non-traditional ways manipulate sound in their projects. The work will span over 3 floors of hallways, small room, stairwells, and dark basements. We will be there to cover their progress and document their work.
Head over to to the official website to watch 3 different live streams from the space.
Check out this trailer below, and stay tuned for more updates! Also, keep scrolling down to see some videos of projects of some of the artists involved.
With all the buzz around iPad music apps and accessories, it’s hard not to think back to the Fairlight CMI, a unit that may have written the standards for on screen music creation. For our readers that might not know as much about what the Fairlight is, I thought I’d get a little more in depth in this NAMM preview.
The sound engine on the Fairlight CMI was the first of it’s kind to use a recorded wave form as the base of the sound. This would usher in an age of digital sampling workstations that would drastically change the music industry. Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush were just a few of the studio heavies that worked with the Fairlight CMI, mainly because they could afford too. The touch screen interface was clearly way ahead of it’s time when it was designed in 1979, but the hardware it required to achieve this put it’s cost out of reach for many. Still, the almost science fiction like way of communicating with sound captivated many.
Keyboards like the Emu Emulaotor and the Ensonique Mirage would make sampling synthesis more affordable and wide spread in the studio, but the touch screen interface that literally let your draw in your waveform and sequence settings went to the wayside. Enter computer based recording and Digital Audio Workstations and we again had the audio we were working with in front of us on a screen. Drawing midi notes into the piano role of a midi sequencer is now a standard part of digital music creation. Several synth plug ins and applications like SPEAR let you draw in your waveform or draw over the waveform of any sound. Computer music now makes any synthesis and sampling technique available, but large touch screens weren’t affordably available until now with the entrence of Apple’s iPad among other tablet devices and computers.
A touch screen provides endless possibilities for interface design, and now that Apple is going to support core MIDI in their iPad we should see plenty more hitting the app store. This could lead to a new age of music software innovation, but doesn’t make hardware worth writing off all together. Just as a traditional music instrument has it’s own unique sound, with any hardware device comes limitations. Some people work well within these limits, pushing boundaries and discovering new ways to work within them as a source of inspiration. Korg has released an iPad version of their popular Electribe drum machine offering the same sounds and hardware like limitation on the touch screen. Pushing buttons and tweaking “knobs” on a touch screen is a bit awkward though. In fact there many not be any other hardware devices that have set a precedence for a integrated touch interface. Enter the Fairlight iPad app:
While Fairlight is now making a 30th Anniversary edition of the full CMI system the cost puts it just as out of reach as it was the first time around. Their iPad app offers the sound set and functionality of a series 2 CMI with some updated features. If they make it playable with something like the Akai Synthstation 49 you now have the opportunity for the same style of hardware/touch screen interface in a way less expensive package. The classic sounds of the CMI are then available the way they were supposed to be played.
In addition to the classic sounds, the “vintage” looking CMI interface appeals to me aesthetically because I’m one of those people who finds inspiration working within the limitations of dated gear. I sometimes have a hard time coming up with ideas within the computer. Anything seems possible when staring at a blank DAW session and it’s hard for me to focus on a starting point without getting hands on. Soft synths reflect the desire of a lot of musicians to have a hardware like interface, and the virtual CMI takes this to the next level in iPad form. More then as just a software emulation though, I think Fairlight is in a unique position to take their app further and really shape some new standards for touch screen music interfaces. It’s nice to think that what’s next for touch screen interfaces could be as classic and inspiring as a musical instrument, while also being newly versatile and expansive given the ability of a touch screen.
Avid, having acquired M-Audio, are now behind Torq. Version 2.0 of the Torq software debuted at Namm and DJ Tech Tools had some harsh words for the brand. It’s true that this update has been long awaited, and many Torq users may have jumped ship buy now for more feature rich software. But I wouldn’t write this software off based on the layout of the screen. One thing that attracted Torq users the first time around was that it was extremely customizable in it’s on screen layout and the ability to use it with any souncard and controller mapping. While other softwares have caught up and in some cases surpassed Torq 1.0 there are two major features that remain in the update that are often overlook when talking about Torq, Rewire and VST support. No other DJ software lets you open any VST effect plugin you want in your mix, and its one of the few that will let you rewire into your recording software to let you record your mix on the same computer you’re DJing on. This is huge for anyone who approaches music production from the DJ world. While Torq may take a little longer to setup and get used too, it’s a quick way to get your production and DJ setups talking to eachother seamlessly on the same computer which makes it worth a look.
The buzz about the Allen & Heath DB4 mixer started a little while ago when it debuted at the BPM show this past year, so the splash wasn’t quite as big at Namm this year with info already floating around about it. Seeing Joe Jack break it down so well in the video above has actually made me a fan though. The input matrix allows all the channels to carry any analog source or channel from your software through the USB sound card. It looks pretty easy to switch through looping and audio effects and edit them on the fly with the simple LED readouts. And knobs look well spaced and overall layout seems pretty intuitive.
What attracts me most to this mixer though is that it achieves what a lot of new Serato and Traktor plugins are attempting to do in a hardware mixer. This takes strain off your computer when processing effects and control data, not to mention the time and effort it takes to custom map your effects and controls in your setup ahead of time. There’s also something about hardware effects that really appeals to me from a sound standpoint. Allen & Heath are known for the fidelity of their mixers and the sound of their filters in particular, so the effects on the DB4 may have an equally unique sound. Projected at over 2800 dollars this mixer sure doesn’t come cheap, but the feature set and layout definitely add it to my short list of dream mixers to play on.
Our buddy Brandon broke down the new Focusrite VRM headphone interface for us at the Focusrite Namm booth this year. Housing the same DSP chip found in their Safire Pro 24 DSP, the VRM contains the same room and speaker simulators to mimic the sound of different environments when you mix. Mixing in headphones has always been a no go in the studio world but many producers are working at home or on the road and can’t always get in front of a good set of speakers. The main problem with headphones is the right and left are so drastically separated and you don’t get the naturally bleeding and mixing you do when listening to speakers. The VRM attempts to solve that problem employing algorithms that will get you close to speaker and room sounds. Nothing beats a good set of monitors but if you have to work in headphones, this looks like it will definitely help you get closer to a good mix.
Phill Wagner, president of the US branch of Focusrite and Novation showed us their new studio networking interfaces at Namm this year. Rednet takes the trusted name of Focusrite’s Red preamps and channel strips and applies it to this new series of high quality interfaces that network to a PCI card via ethernet cable. Pro studio builds often involve separating multiple rooms and booths for tracking, and the amount of cabling needed to get everything routed correctly can be daunting. The Rednet line offers a variety of A to D interfaces that get your studio wired up as quick and easy as it is to lay ethernet cable. Lots of different configurations to choose from for a variety of applications Phill takes us through them all in the video above.